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San Francisco Examiner

Hard-won voting rights always in peril

By Megan Cornish
August 20, 2001

    AH, August. Between backyard barbecues and frolics in the sprinkler, it's time to celebrate Women's Rights Day, commemorating Aug. 26, 1920, when U.S. women finally won the right to vote. This event is no small matter, since the struggle dates from the early 1800s movement to abolish slavery, and the right was won a full 50 years after African American men won the vote. Nevertheless, in light of the 2000 presidential election, this Women's Rights Day is a good time not only to evaluate what we've won, but also to ponder the stark limitations on this much-vaunted right -- and to consider what we can do about it.

    While all citizens now have the right to vote, just how much is that worth?

    If you are black, you may just find that even after registering, your name doesn't appear on voting rolls. Or you may find that the voting machines in your neighborhood are antiquated, polling places are scarce and hours are truncated, so that the actual opportunity to vote is limited. This is a historic injustice that has been happening ever since black men and women won the right to suffrage.

    The voting rights of African Americans are violated because corporate America needs to keep them second-class citizens and block their historic leadership of civil rights, labor and social struggles. The system depends on censoring oppressed people -- especially in this era of poverty, homelessness, discrimination, incarceration and environmental destruction, where conditions are ripe for rebellion. By denying blacks, Haitians, Jews, immigrants and the poor the right to elect their representatives, the disenfranchised are kept voiceless.

    No matter our race or sex, we found out last election that the highest court is full of venal politicians who blandly overturned the Constitution in order to deny the vote to those who threaten the machine favorite.

    Even if everyone had access to the ballot, and the Supreme Court didn't interfere with vote recounts, our indirect presidential election system periodically allows the loser to hold office! It is no accident that this holdover from the slavery era gives added weight to Southern electors.

    Most important, even if "one person, one vote" were a reality, the ugly fact is that Americans aren't given a democratic choice of candidates. To keep profits up, Wall Street ensures that only candidates friendly to its interests are put in office. Both the Democrats and the Republicans answer to big money -- end of story.

    The deck is stacked against minor parties that cannot compete with the billionaire clubs and that face stiff restrictions that produce an unlevel playing field. If we don't break from the two-party system, we can't have democracy.

    The electoral process must be reformed. Here are some ways to open it up:

    1. Rescind laws that restrict ballot access for minor parties. Lower thresholds for obtaining ballot status.

    2. Institute public campaign financing for all candidates who have the minimum voter support. Open up TV debates to all candidates. Why should Democrats and Republicans be able to buy their way into office?

    3. Replace winner-take-all legislative elections with proportional representation. That way, minor parties that get a significant fraction of the vote would be able to represent their constituency.

    4. Establish instant runoff voting. By ranking each candidate, with first-choice votes counting the most, voters' ballots for minority candidates count, without splitting the progressive vote.

    5. Standardize voting equipment. No more second-class treatment of poor, elderly and people-of-color voters.

    6. Give felons and ex-felons the right to vote. Allow non-citizens to vote after completing a period of residency.

    7. Dump the Electoral College. Let voters elect the president directly.

    So, as we bask in the last days of summer, let's celebrate the achievement of (relatively) universal voting rights by fighting for a vote that is worth something -- and that gives us a real political voice.

    Megan Cornish is a tradeswoman, author, and member of Radical Women, a socialist feminist organization immersed in the fight against racism, sexism, homophobia, and labor exploitation. Megan can be reached at [email protected].

Celebrate Women's Rights Day on Saturday, Aug. 25, 7:30 p.m. at "Fiery Feminist Freedomfest 2," featuring Veronica Black, Eighth Wonder, Pam Pam, Merle Woo and Nellie Wong. The event will be held at the Women's Building, 3543 18th St., San Francisco. Call (415) 864-1278 for information.

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Copyright 2001 The Center for Voting and Democracy
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